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Performance art used to be about pain. Physical pain, psychic pain. Not all of it, of course, but a lot. Think back to 1974, when Chris Burden was splayed on the back of a Volkswagen Beetle and crucified. With real nails. Or to 1964’s Cut Piece, where a 31-year-old Yoko Ono, sitting on the stage of Carnegie Hall, invited audience members onstage to use a big pair of scarily sharp scissors to snip off her clothes. Then there was Relation in Space from 1977. Here, a naked Marina Abramovic positioned herself at one end of a space, with her then-lover Ulay, also naked, at the opposite, whereupon each would run (run!) directly into the other, repeating the ritualistic, bruising body-slams non-stop for 30 excruciating minutes.

Ryan McNamara doesn’t do pain. Strenuous? Most definitely. Challenging? Uh-huh. Time-consuming? For sure. Six years ago, when the New York-based performance artist was 30, he spent every day for almost five months taking dance lessons, in public, from various professionals at P.S. 1, an arts centre affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art. He called the whole thing Make Ryan a Dancer, the finale being a marathon of choreography in which McNamara, who at the time was finishing MFA studies in photography and sculpture at Hunter College, busted moves in every room at P.S. 1.

A year later, at a fundraiser on Long Island, he and a colleague had themselves lowered upright into holes in the forest floor and buried up to their necks in wood chips. Then for the rest of the evening, as passersby trod close (mostly) to their heads, they sang Ghetto Supastar/Islands in the Stream into microphones placed on the ground before them.

Ryan McNamara has mounted at least 30 site-specific performance pieces of varying degrees of complexity over the past seven years. (Fred Lum/ The Globe and Mail)

By rough estimate, McNamara has mounted at least 30 site-specific performance pieces of varying degrees of complexity over the past seven years in cities such as Moscow, Sao Paulo, Dallas, Rotterdam and Istanbul.

His big breakthrough was a double-barrelled affair: The first blast, in November, 2013, was his award-winning presentation of MEEM: A Story Ballet About the Internet, at the Performa 13 biennial in New York; one year later, he and his troupe delivered a combination update/reprise at Art Basel Miami Beach, calling it MEEM 4 MIAMI.

Most recently, on three consecutive evenings in early May, McNamara presented Battleground, a “cosplay-ballet-battle” involving three teams of colour-coded performers (clad in blue, red and green) at the Peter B. Lewis Theatre in Manhattan’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Coming June 2: a feature evening performance centred on Toronto’s Harbourfront Theatre as part of Power Ball XVIII, the annual major fundraiser/party for the Power Plant, perhaps Canada’s premier venue for cutting-edge visual art. The ball’s theme: The Pleasure Principle.

The Toronto appearance is a Canadian first for McNamara, whose febrile combinations of installation with genre-spanning dance, music with audience participation, costume play with drama, and digital with 3-D have made him the genial face of contemporary performance art. It helps, too, that the actual face is boyishly handsome, animated by a winning smile, a ready laugh and a set of blue eyes pale enough to inspire a Lou Reed. What was once the art world’s most determinedly anti-commercial idiom is now deeply integrated into that world – the go-to method to simultaneously “lively up your patrons” and “activate your space.” Today, that space can be an art fair, a commercial gallery, a not-for-profit, multidisciplinary museum, even a pricey boutique, such as Louis Vuitton’s New York flagship where, in fall 2010, McNamara formed 30 male dancers into a “showboy production line” to perform outrageous acts on the LV Speedy Bag.

Of course, the irony of this isn’t lost on McNamara, whose standard of living and international fame have risen commensurately with his own indefatigability and resourcefulness as well as performance art’s gain in respectability and showmanship. As he observed during a recent series of brief interviews in-person in Toronto and on the phone from New York, performance as a form arose initially as “this anti-market thing.” It was a riposte to the commodification of art, a celebration of the purity of impermanence and evanescence, a stamina-testing activity unfolding in real time, almost punk-like in its DIY anti-virtuosity.

“The theoretical underpinning was, is, ‘You have to be there to experience it,’” he says. “Of course, we say that about a lot of art – that you have to travel here or there to truly see it. But performance takes it to the next level … Not only do you have to be in a particular place, you have to be in the place at the right time.”

Ryan McNamara’s breakthrough began with his award-winning presentation of MEEM: A Story Ballet About the Internet, at the Performa 13 biennial in New York in 2013.

Paradoxically, as performance has become more professional and popular, even populist, thanks in part to digital recording and archiving and the support of major art institutions, the actual right time/right place experience has become more exclusive – a situation McNamara describes as “kind of weird. I mean, I’m not an anti-market person – but I did enter this to speak to an interested audience, whether that audience could afford the airfare to Miami or a hotel there or not.”

At the Power Ball, McNamara’s thus-far-untitled “situation-specific intervention,” featuring an estimated “cast” of 20 performers, most of them Torontonians, will evolve over two hours as the linchpin of what’s called the “VIP portion of the evening.” “VIP” means that as many as 300 patrons, who will have paid anywhere from $500 for a single admission to $3,000 for an eight-ticket package, get the opportunity to be exclusively “playful” with McNamara and company. The non-VIP portion (aka “the general party’), with its single admission of $175, occurs afterward, outside Harbourfront Theatre in the Power Plant galleries and on its south terrace abutting Lake Ontario, with artists other than McNamara taking over those spaces.

McNamara, who received his Power Plant commission in February, made two trips to Toronto, the first in mid-March, the next in early April, primarily to meet gallery personnel, walk the space and to shoot video and photographs of Harbourfront Theatre. Inspiration, he’s found, can come from the oddest things – “The placement of a fire hose could just spark something” – even a punny thought that has refused to go away. This happened in 2010 when he was invited to participate for one night in that year’s prestigious Whitney Biennial. His mind raced back to when he visited the 1996 Biennial as a self-described 16-year-old art-dabbler: “I thought then: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if someday I was in the Whitney [Biennial] and we turned it into the Whitney Houston Biennial?’” When that moment did indeed come, McNamara was true to his original vision, transforming the Whitney into one big karaoke party featuring the Whitney’s docents handing out sheets of lyrics to Houston’s songs.

With the Harbourfront/Power Plant complex, he says, “I have a floor plan but, oftentimes, I need really weird measurements that I won’t know I need until I have the idea [of what I likely will do]. In that case, I have to send out curators to measure these tiny gaps that aren’t on the plan.” Nothing’s worse, he adds, than returning to his New York studio from a visit to a faraway site and wondering: “Is there a door before there, or is there not?”

The challenge for McNamara at the Power Ball will be to both go with the flow and be the flow. Observes Julia Paoli, Power Plant assistant curator and primary liaison with McNamara: “I think Ryan understands that the people who are attending, part of their desire is to be participating in and viewing a work they’ve never seen before. But they’re also interested in having a drink, something to eat and catching up with people who perhaps they haven’t seen for a while. So it’s about creating an environment conducive to both experiences.

The challenge for McNamara at the Power Ball will be to both go with the flow and be the flow.

“What I’m struck by with Ryan is the way he wants to punctuate that experience with surprises that speak to his practice and gesture to his larger body of work, but that do so in a way you’re not necessarily expecting, or you’re put in a situation where you know that it’s coming.”

McNamara says he likes to attack each project afresh and prides himself on not falling back on old “hits” to solve a new work’s problem. Yet even with this ethic, he acknowledges that, after almost 10 years, he’s “built up enough practice that sometimes it’s hard for me to think outside of it. I need to make sure it doesn’t become a job where I say, ‘Well, this is what I’d do so I’d never do that because it’s not my brand.’ I do feel like my natural instinct is getting more and more narrow as I build up more and more history … Sometimes you should do something you’re pretty sure isn’t going to work.”

As of this writing, McNamara and his associate director, fellow New Yorker Brandon Dion Washington, weren’t expected to start actual rehearsals for the Pleasure Principle event until three days before the “official” presentation. The notion of rehearsing may strike some as antithetical to the looseness and open-endedness that are among performance’s founding myths. Indeed, McNamara’s conversation is peppered with talk of “courting chance,” of being “used to life intervening in my practice,” of having performers who “can think on their feet rather than have the perfect pointe technique, because I can’t present to them all the options of how people are going to react and interact.”

However, at the same time, preparation is of paramount importance: “You need to build a really strict structure so that” – and here he let out a big laugh – “it can all fall apart. If there’s no structure, there’s nothing to collapse; it’s already flat on the ground. It’s like setting up the living room in a very precise way so then the party can happen and all hell can break loose.”

Speaking in early April, McNamara claimed to “at least have the concept” hammered out for what he’d be presenting on June 2. “The logistics,” though, “[were] still a little TBD” as was any title, working or otherwise. He predicted his intervention would be “much more performer-heavy than installation-heavy,” although the performers likely would build “something ephemeral” over the course of the evening. The 200 or 300 retractable seats on the theatre’s main floor would be pushed back to open the space. Some of the performers may be in ball dress, others in street dress, still others likely “heavily costumed.” And because revellers would be arriving at different times, milling about, leaving, then coming back, there probably would be “a bunch of smaller interventions rather than one big performance.” Then again, he adds with a shrug, who says it would have to be either/or?

McNamara says he likes to attack each project afresh. (Fred Lum/ The Globe and Mail)

“Some of the performers will be trained dancers while others will not,” says Paoli. “Some of the gestures or moments Ryan is choreographing will not require trained dancers while others will. There is a flexibility and fluidity in this process … where Ryan will respond to the bodies that are participating and the architecture of the theatre itself.”

Of course, the performance is going to be documented and memorialized, both by McNamara and by attendees who’ve brought their smartphones. Back in the day, this would have been anathema to many – the event was a one-time, near-sacred thing. If you weren’t there, you weren’t there and what you, as a non-participant, learned about it was by word-of-mouth. Sure, the creator might record it for reference or historical purposes and store its props in a closet. But to give an afterlife to a happening that wasn’t supposed to happen again, to create, in effect, a secondary market where photographs, videos, preparatory sketches, artifacts and the like could be sold and bought? Quelle horreur!

McNamara doesn’t see it that way. Social media, he says, is a fact of life and art, with the inherent ability to create “an instantaneous secondary audience. You don’t have to wait for the museum retrospective to then have the secondary audience or the book to be published. People are experiencing the piece as it’s happening who aren’t there. That’s interesting to me.”

The Harbourfront performance, moreover, will comprise many moments, appearing and disappearing, spread over 120 minutes; no single visitor will be able to experience all of them in their entirety. “I love going onto social media afterwards with the performers, seeing what there is, what others got that we might have missed or what we might have got but they did better …”

Meanwhile, McNamara is in loose discussions with the Power Plant to do another Power Plant-specific show next spring – “but without the drink and the food.”

McNamara isn’t expecting to be an actual performer June 2. “Ringmaster” might be the more accurate job description. But you never know. “The last four projects I’ve done,” he says, “I wasn’t supposed to be in them but I was … One way or the other, history, it seems, has a way of me showing up in the piece.”

Ryan McNamara’s “situation-specific intervention” at Power Ball XVIII: Pleasure Principle begins at 7 p.m. June 2 at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, 231 Queen’s Quay W., Toronto. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Information: